13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History (Hardcover)
Michael Shermer's study of Wallace contributes to the recent rise of interest in this fascinating Victorian scientist by presenting a fair-minded biographical account, while attempting to analyze the various components of Wallace's personality through various objective methods. The results are interesting and well worth digesting, but there are still weaknesses in the treatment that have the effect of leading us down blind alleys. To begin with, Shermer has relatively little to say about Wallace's science, and how it has (and hasn't) affected more recent thought. This is a critical matter, because the most important thing about Wallace is the level of prescience he exhibited in dealing with both scientific and social subjects. A wholly successful biography of Wallace cannot be just a biography (as in the case of the recent, and very nice *written*, one by Peter Raby), it must be an analysis of his *ideas*. This Shermer does not attempt to do, partly because he is not a scientist, and partly because he has the good sense to realize that any such effort that will stand the test of time will not be possible for a good long time yet. Instead, he concentrates on establishing a psychological profile of Wallace, based largely on meta-data approaches developed by Frank Sulloway. The profile Shermer comes up with, that of the "heretic scientist," is interesting in a descriptive sort of way (assuming one believes the approach is well-advised in the case of someone as unusual as Wallace to begin with, and many knowledgeable observers, including ones interviewed by Shermer in the book, don't think it is), but in the end tells us almost nothing about the man's actual accomplishments, or why we need continue delving into them.
The danger in Shermer's approach is that it breeds preconception and red-herring...whether Wallace's ideas on dozens of different subjects might have been seriously under-examined in the context of modern times?
On the other hand, between Shermer and Raby and the numerous other studies and anthologies of the past few years we now have a solid foundation of *identity* upon which to move ahead. Shermer's work is well written and carefully constructed (though there are some typos and factual errors: for example, Wallace's visit to California included a trip to the *future* site of Stanford University, not its operating one, as Shermer implies), and covers the main biographical points more than adequately. Hopefully, this will be the last of the necessary "continuing preludes" to Wallace studies, and we can now move on to some more revealing insights.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 18, 2012 1:08:22 PM PST
John R. Wilson says:
I don't understand why a biography "must" include an analysis of its subject's "ideas" or the reception of his ideas in his own time and in his future. You may define the contents of a "complete" biography in this way, but why should I accept your definition? And by the way, how does Shermer's approach breed "preconception and re-herring"? What preconceptions, whose preconceptions? How? It's entirely possible to prepare a great biography entirely from the perspective of its subject living out his life in his own time.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 18, 2012 2:26:40 PM PST
C. H Smith says:
My main response to these remarks is that for most subjects their activities more or less die with them; not so in the case of polymaths such as Wallace. Wallace had a very interesting life, but in the last analysis it is his still-developing ideas that are of primary interest. Thus Wallace is not just history, and to understand his life in its larger context we should do more than dwell on how he lived "out his life in his own time." Shermer's otherwise good biography is marred by his birth-order analysis, which if descriptive is not really explanatory in any useful sense. Do we really understand Wallace any better on this basis--I don't think so.
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